In the Spotlight

News & Features
All Along the Ice Tower
By Tim Post, MPR News
March 27, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

For years ice climbers in Minnesota have traveled to the craggy cliffs of the North Shore of Lake Superior or to a few of the state's river valleys to practice their sport. But climbers near Motley in North Central Minnesota, have opened an artificial venue for ice climbing, a four-story tower covered with ice.
The ice tower is lit from within, causing it to glow at night. To learn more about the ice tower, watch the multimedia slideshow.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

BART BRODERSON IS AN ICE CLIMBER who was tired of traveling three hours to the North Shore to enjoy his hobby. So Broderson and a few other climbers decided to build their own frozen waterfall. Broderson thought Camp Shamineau, the youth camp where he works, would be a perfect home for an ice tower; the Iceosceles Pinnacle was born.

Layers of blue ice at least a foot thick cover a skeleton 42-feet tall. Three telephone polls with iron bars stretched between look like an adult-sized, abstract jungle gym. Five months of Minnesota Winter have turned a trickle of water, into a massive wall of ice - ice that Broderson claims is safer than anything in the wild.

"When we teach ice climbing off site, we get there and we don't know the conditions of the ice," he says. "It could be fragile, it could have running water behind it, you could have a lot of variations that are very dangerous. Here we are able to control the safety of the ice, and that's the major factor - you're able to teach ice climbing in a controlled environment."

Climbers get a short briefing on the basics, and then it's time to head outside and hit the wall. They put a hockey helmet on for protection, then attach to a line at the base of the tower, which looms 40-plus feet overhead. It stands among the dark woods at the camp. It's hollow, lit from within with powerful outdoor spotlights, and glows an icy shade of blue. There are six sides to climb; three on the outside of the tower, and three on the inside.

As a climber digs his axes into the wall of ice, he slowly pulls himself up. With a satisfying and solid "thunk" the axes sink into the ice, as do fierce-looking metal crampons strapped to their boots. Each move the climber makes sends shards of ice to the ground.

Paul Ferguson, an officer with the Salvation Army in Brainerd, is the lone climber on the tower. Ferguson says he's here for the challenge. But there's another reason: the equipment is cool.

"Ice climbing has alway fascinated me, even more than rock climbing," he says. "I open a book or a magazine, and a couple of catalogs I get, the first thing I flip to is the ice-climbing gear. I look at all these cool axes and all these neat toys and that go along with it and it's like, 'Yeah, I could see myself doing that.'"

The climbing instructors at Camp Shamineau estimate that they've given about 500 people their start in the chilly sport. Instructor Scott Osterhaus says the ice tower seems to draw people to ice climbing.

"They love it. Usually they'll come in, and a lot of the times it's night when they'll come in, and you can see it glowing from the sides of the road; it just gets people right away. It looks so cool, as you're coming in, the whole thing is lit up and it just makes people want get up close to it and climb it and try it," Osterhaus says.

Ice climbing towers are rare in America. The climbers at Camp Shamineau have found only one other tower in the country - in Colorado. They've heard stories of people making their own ice on grain elevators in the Midwest, and they've received a lot of calls recently from people interested in copying their effort.

Climbers at Camp Shamineau intended to climb through the first part of April, but warm weather the past few weeks has put an end to this year's season. The ice tower will be open again next year in late November or early December, weather permitting.